Embroidering on a Theme

Bethanne Knudson reinvented mill textiles in WNC. Photo by Matt Rose

Since 1996, the number of North Carolina textile and apparel plants has decreased by 40 percent, per a Duke University study. Made in WNC, an exhibition essay released in 2015 by The Center for Craft in Asheville, explored the causes — including technological advances and cheaper labor overseas — and effects of deindustrialization, and noted that the trend “is palpably felt in the hills of WNC, once an international center for textile, furniture, and ceramic production.”

But the publication also suggests that the industry is changing — that thoughtful entrepreneurs see a niche and are prepared to fill it, reviving textiles as an artisan endeavor. Case in point: The Oriole Mill. Founded in 2006 by Bethanne Knudson and Stephan Michelson, Oriole strikes out against traditional industry models with a design-centered approach that values quality over quantity. A small staff produces sustainable fabrics — Egyptian Giza cotton, bamboo, linen, mohair, silk, wool — that are later used by Western Carolina Sewing Company (aka Sew Co.) to make home and body products. Items, previously sold online, are now also offered at the new Oriole Mill Retail Store, opened late last year.

Katie Pike arranges assorted hand-sewn fabrics in the Oriole Mill showroom. Photo by Matt Rose

It’s a closed circuit: all operations, including Sew Co., are housed in a 72,000-square-foot frozen-vegetable-packaging plant near the Hendersonville Boys and Girls Club. “Yarn comes into the building, and completed sewn goods go out,” explains Knudson. Having worked in textiles since 1996, she witnessed the industry boom, bust, and ultimately evolve. “Consumer interest in quality and sustainability has increased each year. They want to know how items are made and by whom and in what environment,” she says. “People understand that how they spend their money is a powerful influence.”

Appealing to buyers’ wants, Knudson and Michelson stress candor in all aspects of making, even management. The self-supervised staff members can pick up new skills and exercise creative freedom without heavy-handed oversight. In this way, Oriole breaks from the paternalism that typified Southern mills in the early to mid 20th century, when textile tycoons who owned the factories also owned the surrounding land, houses, stores, and churches, controlling prices on rent, utilities, and groceries — a practice that kept most residents in poverty. (The former Balfour Mills in Henderson County is the notable local example of a company-owned town — it so typified the genre it was the subject of a manuscript commissioned by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression.)

The Mill’s high-end goods are made in-house. Photo by Matt Rose

Those old practices just don’t sit right with Knudson. Ethical issues aside, fine textiles can only be accomplished on a boutique scale. “We are happy to be small because it makes it possible to do what we do in the way we want to do it,” she explains.
With Sew Co.’s Libby O’Bryan in house, Oriole can tweak prototypes and fast-track production, ensuring that original designs hit the market without any hiccups. Plus, with the new brick-and-mortar storefront, they can cut shipping charges and sell at wholesale. This drives down costs absorbed by consumers. “We had planned to have a store from the beginning,” says Knudson.

Bestselling retail items have included Jacquard-woven aprons, tea towels, and throws. Oriole’s chemical-free bedroom ensembles were featured in The New York Times, their dark and brooding “Brooklyn” series stealing city readers’ hearts.
Judging by the mill’s unparalleled success, one could say textiles are seeing an upswing, if not a comeback. But that kind of optimism gives Knudson pause. “The industry is feeling pressure,” she admits. However, she also notes that “starting a mill from scratch is a massive undertaking.” Asked if she had any apprehensions in the early days at Oriole, Knudson nods eagerly: “Of course,” she says. “I’m not sure Stephan did, though. He’s fearless.”

The Oriole Mill, 701 Oriole Drive, Hendersonville, 828-693-5500 (retail store open Monday through Friday, 10am-3pm); theoriolemill.com.

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